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Revisiting one of the early candidates for worst trade of the century

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The Philadelphia Phillies designated Grady Sizemore for assignment on Friday. It looks like Cliff Lee's career may be over. Brandon Phillips has started to show some signs of decline in the past couple of seasons. Now is as good a time as any to take a look back at one of the worst trades of the century.

Sure.. He's a Met, but he's still one of the most lovable players in the majors. Omar Minaya crippled the Expos farm system in 2002 dealing for Bartolo Colon. On Friday, one of the players dealt in that trade was DFA'd.
Sure.. He's a Met, but he's still one of the most lovable players in the majors. Omar Minaya crippled the Expos farm system in 2002 dealing for Bartolo Colon. On Friday, one of the players dealt in that trade was DFA'd.
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The year was 2002.  It was the first season after Jeffrey Loria's euthanization of the Montreal Expos was complete.  He'd sold the club to the other 29 owners at a hefty profit and used that money to go terrorize another fanbase in Miami.  Rather than letting the door hit him in the butt on the way out, Loria responded by taking pretty much the entire off field staff with him to the Marlins, as well as manager and noted destroyer of young pitchers, Jeff Torborg.  The Expos replaced Torborg with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and gave up-and-coming executive Omar Minaya a shot to serve as the organization's GM/steward until MLB found them a new home.

Considering that the Expos were coming off of a 68-94 campaign in 2001 and that the other 29 owners didn't want to open up their wallets for Minaya, nobody expected the Expos to be very good in 2002.  They defied the conventional logic, though, and were 41-36 in late June.  They were seven games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, but they were within striking distance of the wildcard race.  They trailed the eventual wildcard winners (the Giants) by just three games.  Minaya urged the joint owners of the Expos to authorize some money in the budget so he could take a shot.  Minaya was trying to help push his team over the top; he was trying to make a name for himself; perhaps most importantly, he was trying to revitalize the fan support in Montreal and save the franchise.

While Minaya wasn't going to make a name for himself and get a legitimate high profile job (see: Mets, New York) by making lopsided deals, the farm system probably didn't mean a whole lot to Minaya at the time.  The Expos were in limbo... They were owned by the other 29 teams.  There had been talk of contraction over the previous couple of offseasons, so there was no guarantee that the organization would even continue to exist by the time the prospects he traded away were ready.  There was a chance that the Expos farm system would be absorbed by the other clubs in some type of dispersal draft if the organization ceased to exist.  Even if the other possible option (which happened a few years later) occurred, there was no guarantee that Minaya would be around when the Expos moved to their new home and had new ownership.  For the 2002 Expos, there was no tomorrow, and this trade reflected that.

With all of that in mind, on June 27, 2002, Omar Minaya made a deal that is among the early front-runners for the worst (at least most short-sighted) trade of the century.  He traded Brandon Phillips (Expos #1 prospect by Baseball America that year), Grady Sizemore (#3), Cliff Lee (#11), and Lee Stevens to the Cleveland Indians for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew*.

*Yes... That's J.D. and Stephen's brother... He was a pitcher who ended his career with a 7.02 ERA in 84.2 innings over five seasons

First off, let's remember that this was thirteen years, sixty pounds, and ten MPH on his fastball ago for Big Bartolo.  Colon had arguably his best season in 2002, finishing 20-8 with a 2.93 ERA, a 1.24 WHIP, and 149 strikeouts in 233.1 innings.  He was outstanding before the trade (10-4, 2.55 ERA, 1.16 WHIP) and pretty darned good after it (10-4, 3.31 ERA, 1.32 WHIP).

Let's also remember that these numbers came near the tail end of the "Steroid Era" so offensive numbers were still up.  He finished the year with a 147 ERA+ (172 ERA+ in Cleveland, 129 ERA+ in Montreal), so his ERA was 47% better than league average.  That ties his career best in the category (2013 in Oakland, when he had a 2.65 ERA and 147 ERA+).  He also finished the year with 7.1 rWAR (career best by a full two wins) and 4.3 fWAR (just shy of his career best in 2003).

Colon did have another year's worth of club control at the time, which probably drove his price up a bit.  Of course, the Expos never used that.  Minaya wasn't authorized enough money by the 29 joint owners to keep him on the payroll for 2003, so they traded him to the White Sox over the offseason.  Their return of Orlando Hernandez (who missed all of 2003 with a torn rotator cuff and never threw a pitch for the Expos), Rocky Biddle (an established and mediocre middle reliever), and Jeff Liefer (a 28-year-old fourth outfielder who finished his career with a .230/.281/.398 line) obviously paled in comparison to what Minaya paid to acquire Colon.

Let's examine the pieces that Minaya gave up to acquire Big Bartolo in 2002......

Brandon Phillips: Career - .272/.319/.422, 176 HR, 167 SB, 3 time All Star, 4 time Gold Glover, 1 Silver Slugger, 3 20/20 seasons, 1 30/30 season, 27.8 fWAR

The weird thing about Phillips' part in this trade is that he's the one who ended up being the slowest of the three big players moved to develop.  At the time, Phillips was a 21-year-old Shortstop who was the top prospect in the Expos' organization.  The Indians were aggressive with Phillips, giving him a cup of coffee in September of that season and carrying him north out of Spring Training in 2003 to take over the second base job.  Phillips certainly didn't shine in his rookie year, batting just .208/.242/.311 with 6 HR and 4 SB in 9 attempts in 393 PA before being sent back to AAA.

Phillips would end up spending most of the next two seasons in AAA for Cleveland before being traded across the state of Ohio to Cincinnati for a player to be named later (Jeff Stevens.... If you haven't heard of him, you're not alone).  In his first season for the Reds, Phillips hit .276 with 17 HR and 25 SB.  He followed that up with three consecutive 20/20 seasons, the first of which saw him actually join the 30/30 club with 30 HR and 32 SB.

Now 33, Phillips is showing some signs of decline... Still, he had an excellent eight year peak from 2006-2013.  There's no telling if the Expos/Nats would have been willing to show a little more patience with Phillips than Cleveland did, but Phillips alone was an awful lot to give for three months of Bartolo Colon.

Cliff Lee: Career - 143-91, 3.52 ERA (3.45 FIP), 1.20 WHIP, 1824:464 K:BB ratio in 2156 IP... 4 time All Star, 1 Cy Young Award, 3 Top Five Cy Young finishes, 48.0 fWAR

Lee was the tertiary piece in this deal going to the Indians.  Phillips was supposed to be a ready-made middle infielder with power and speed.  Sizemore was pure athleticism, but he was kind of raw and was only in A+ ball.  Lee was a really good young pitcher in AA who had moved up the prospect ranks after a strong 2001 and backed it up with a strong showing early in 2002.  He was primarily thought of as a future middle of the rotation starter who was fairly close to the majors at the time, which is a pretty decent trade chip for a team focusing on prospects.  That said, I don't think that anyone expected him to turn into the big league ace that he became.

Just as they were with Phillips, the Indians were kind of aggressive with Lee.  He got that September cup of coffee in 2002 and looked pretty solid.  They moved him back to AAA to begin the next season, but called him back up for good in August of 2003.  Lee had kind of a rough 2004 (though his 14-8 record didn't reflect that) with a 5.43 ERA, but he showed steady improvement for the next couple of years.  Then 2007 happened... It's time for some narrative!

Lee had an absolutely miserable season in 2007.  His walk rate spiked.  His HR/9 of 1.57 was off the charts.  In 16 starts and 20 appearances for Cleveland that season, Lee had a 6.29 ERA and 1.52 WHIP, eventually earning a demotion to the minors.  Lee made 10 starts across three levels as he tried to rebuild his confidence and work his way back to the big league rotation.  As in life, sometimes people eventually hit rock bottom and later ascend to levels that we never knew they were capable of.  Perhaps this is what happened to Lee.

After losing his job in 2007, it might be fair to say that Lee bounced back a bit in 2008.  He showed massive improvement with both his command and control.  Lee suddenly stopped walking hitters almost altogether, cutting his walk rate from 3.33 in 2007 to 1.37 in 2008.  His home run rate dipped more than a full HR/9 innings from 1.57 to 0.48.  He went 22-3 in 223 innings for the Indians that season with a 2.54 ERA (2.83 FIP), a 1.11 WHIP, and 170 strikeouts.  Lee won both the Cy Young and the AL Comeback Player of the Year awards that season.  He maintained similar success for the next five seasons.  Unfortunately, after suffering multiple elbow injuries over the past couple of years, Lee (36) may have thrown his last pitch in the majors.

Grady Sizemore: Career - .265/.351/.458, 144 HR, 140 SB, 3 time All Star, 2 time Gold Glover, 1 Silver Slugger, 4 20/20 seasons, 1 30/30 season, 28.9 fWAR

Sizemore getting DFA'd is the reason that I decided today was a good time to write this, so we're going to talk about him last.  For Expos fans, Sizemore was the guy that we could dream on.  He was still really raw at the time of the deal.  He was a couple of years away, but he was expected to develop into a power/speed bat with patience and an outstanding defender in CF.

The Tribe was patient with him, allowing him to finish the 2002 campaign in A+ ball.  They gave him a full year in AA  and most of the 2004 season in AAA before calling him up to the majors.  Sizemore never did hit a ton of home runs in the minors, but he did hit for more power as he ascended through the system, notching 49 doubles, 19 triples, and 21 homers in the high minors in those two years before he reached the majors.

When Sizemore reached the majors at 22 years old, he was a star almost immediately.  He wasn't great in his late season trial in 2004, but he hit .289/.348/.484 in his first full season (2005) with 22 HR and 22 SB.  He followed that up by leading the league in doubles (52) and runs (134) while batting .290/.375/.533 and having his second consecutive 20/20 campaign.  His third straight 20/20 campaign in 2007 saw his OBP climb to .390.  Finally, he reached the 30/30 plateau with 33 HR and 38 SB in 2008.

From 2005-2008, Grady Sizemore accumulated 27.3 fWAR... He was almost a 7 win player.  I think it's safe to say that Mike Trout has surpassed what Sizemore did in his first few seasons, but I've always thought of them in the same vein.  As a baseball fan, I hope Trout's peak ends up being quite a bit longer than Grady's was....

Sadly, in 2009, Sizemore's career took a turn for the worse.  He struggled with nagging groin and elbow injuries prior to the season and his production dropped off quite a bit (.248/.343/.445, 18 HR, 13 SB).  He opted to have surgery on his elbow late in the year when Cleveland was out of contention and shut him down.  Ever since that first injury, Sizemore has never been the same guy he was early in his career.  This was largely due to a series of injuries.

  • He injured his left knee during Spring Training in 2010 and tried to play through it for a couple of months before opting for arthroscopic surgery in May of that season
  • He injured his right knee twice in 2011 and was limited to 295 PA with two lengthy DL stints
  • He sat out the 2012 and 2013 campaigns after back surgery
  • After signing with the Red Sox in 2014, Sizemore couldn't sustain an early run of success and was released in June.
  • He caught on with the Phillies as a stopgap late last season and was retained to begin 2015, but that era now seems to be at an end.  Sizemore was designated for assignment on Friday.

The Expos fan in me has always rooted for Grady... even when he was with the Phillies.  He was a prospect that I'd already started to get excited about prior to that awful trade in 2002.  He was a player that I followed in Cleveland because of his ties to the Expos organization.  He almost immediately turned into the most exciting young talent in the league for about five years.  Then one injury derailed him... followed by another.. and another.  It's just kind of sad to think that Sizemore is still only 32 years old and see how badly injuries have eroded his talent.

Big Bartolo Colon

The weird thing about this whole trade is that Bartolo is still going strong.  Admittedly, what really ended up making the trade so terrible is that Minaya traded away six (plus) years of club control on each of the three players above for what amounted to three months worth of Bartolo Colon.  I never imagined that Colon (now 42), who was six years older than the oldest player (Lee) among the main pieces in that deal, would be the most productive player of the bunch thirteen years later.

According to fWAR, he's been more valuable than Phillips in each of the past two seasons.  They're currently tied at 0.7 fWAR so far in 2015.  Lee has been significantly better than Colon in recent years, but it really seems that he may never throw another big league pitch, so Bart might outlast him.  After being DFA'd by arguably the worst team in the league on Friday, it's hard to imagine Sizemore will ever be a productive major leaguer again.  He may catch on somewhere, but his career as a potentially useful big league starter appears to be over.

If the apocalypse ever happens, there will be three things that survive it... Cockroaches, Twinkies, and Big Fat Bartolo Colon.  He may end up eating them all and be the last sign of life on earth.